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Spring 2012 Abstracts

Sarah Barnett
Dinner on the Couch: On the Emergence and Evolution of the TV Dinner as a Cultural Phenomenon in Contemporary America
The TV Dinner is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon.  In this semiotic and symptomatic cultural study, Sarah Barnett examines the emergence, development, and significance of the TV Dinner in American economic and consumer cultures.  She delineates the multiple conditions of possibility— social, cultural, technological, and economic—that enabled the invention and later popularization of this commodity since the 1950s.  More specifically, this project examines how very specific developments in freezing technologies, television technologies, advertising, and social transformations in the domestic sphere coalesced to pave the way for the development of a TV Dinner landscape that promised, and perhaps even, delivered convenience and variety—albeit pre-packaged—to the American (female) consumer.  Meals and mealtimes have always occupied a special and central place in American culture.  However, what meals are made of, how they are produced, how they are consumed and enjoyed, how they are represented, and what they mean to those who consume them have all changed dramatically over time.  In her attempt to address some of these questions in relation to the TV Dinner and develop a complex, multi-faceted investigation of the phenomenon, Barnett draws on Raymond Williams’ seminal analysis of television and Foucault’s critical conception of productive power to not only address how the TV Dinner has changed our culinary and eating practices and ideas, but also reveal how this cultural phenomenon exemplifies and underlines significant trends and tendencies in the larger social formation and historical conjuncture of the 1950s. 

Wesley Brown
Towards a New Politics of Resistance: On Squatting, the Occupy Movement, and the Re-Articulation of Political Agency in Contemporary America 

In this project, Wesley Brown seeks to contextualize the practice of squatting in contemporary America by examining the ways in which it is not only or simply a sociological phenomenon tied to discourses of homelessness, but also—and more importantly—a  unique mode of resisting global capitalist hegemony grounded in an ethical commitment to radical egalitarianism. Using three key problematics, Wesley attempts to show that squatting—in its distinct American configuration—is primarily a political activity and argues that it is only by engaging in direct actions and practices of resistance that citizens can be said to possess political agency. He first analyzes representations of squatting in journalistic and entertainment media in order to situate ‘the squatter’ as a discursively produced subject-position currently undergoing significant ideological re-inscription. Second, drawing upon the work of David Harvey, he argues that squatting is an appropriate, efficacious response to the creative destruction entailed in accumulation by dispossession under capitalism, an explicitly active response that claims a “right to the city.” Third, proceeding from Foucault’s discussion of ethics as a rapport à soi and, more recently, Simon Critchley’s formulation of ethical subjectivity, he argues that squatters can be seen as enacting a liberatory, rather than repressive, conception of subjectivity by striving for social justice outside the bounds of normative state power and in accordance with deeply held beliefs concerning human dignity. By approaching the subject in terms of subjectivity, hegemony, and agency, Wesley not only seeks to offer a more fully developed, more complex understanding of squatting than what conventional studies and journalistic representations in the United States provide, but he also attempts to position the practice as an important tool for resisting the capitalist mode of production that has in no small part informed the ongoing efforts of the Occupy movement.

Danielle Coirier
“Show Me That I’m Everywhere (and Get Me Home for Tea)”: On the Cultural Appropriation and Re-Appropriation of Vedic Traditions in America

Although Western interest in India dates back to the seventeenth century, a second wave of renewed attention to Indian cultural texts and practices—especially Vedic—occurred during the 1960s. In this post-colonial study, Danielle Coirier argues not only that the dominant orientalist ideas about India largely determined how these texts and practices were ‘decoded’ and deployed in the West and particularly in America, but also that the Indian response to this appropriation of residual Vedic cultural practices was, in turn, largely over-determined by their colonial experience and their own preconceptions about and perceptions of the Western world.  For Coirier, as Westerners encountered and appropriated various elements of Indian and Vedic culture, both the substance and forms were transformed to fit the dominant, homogenizing cultures of the West.  These practices were then re-appropriated back into India, and were now redefining and informing the interpretation of these texts in their original context.  The results of these complex cultural exchanges and processes, Coirier argues, are new, hybrid practices.  However, unlike conventional studies which tend to read these practices of appropriation and re-appropriation as celebrations of global cultural flows, multiculturalism and national identity and pride, this study, engaging a complex body of classic and new post-colonial scholarship, insists that because of Western cultural hegemony and dominance, this process of transculturation actually perpetuates and reproduces an orientalist reading of Indian history and culture not only by Westerners, but by Indians, as well.   

Ellen England
Vive le Vagina: Interrogating the Tabooing and Commodification of the Female Body in the 21st Century

In this feminist intervention, Ellen England seeks to critically interrogate the dominant ideologies and practices surrounding the female body and the vagina in particular.  More specifically, she examines the historical neglect, if not erasure— and the cultural negativity, censorship, and tabooing that this most intimate—yet most vital— of female body parts has been subjected to in the West.  England’s cultural study is three-fold: The first part revisits Foucault’s critical studies of the body, discourse, and power to reveal how the Western discourse of the female body and of the vagina, while in principle limitless, have historically been strictly regulated through practices of containment, policing, and censorship.  In the second part, England deploys and expands Marx’s notion of the commodity to make sense of and warn against the increasing commodification of the (female) body and, more specifically, the vagina, as evidenced by the alarming popularity of plastic and vaginal surgeries in the last few decades.  Third, and most importantly, England draws on recent feminist scholarship on the body and plastic surgery not only to explore the complexity of the vagina—as a site where history, science, fashion, culture, and the economy are all articulated in a specific way to reproduce traditional feminine subjectivities and ‘docile [female] bodies’—but also to engage and promote emergent, resistant practices and movements that seek to de-taboo and de-commodify the female genitalia and empower female subjects at the current conjuncture. 

Spencer Huang
Capitalism’s Ghost in the Machine: Hacker Ethics, Capitalist Logics, and the Dialectics of Technological Innovation

Spencer Huang interrogates the technology industries by critically analyzing the dominant ideologies that legitimize technological innovation. The capitalist logic of return-oriented and selective (technological) development, Huang argues, is inherently at odds with the “hacker ethic,” a world-view rooted in exploration for the sake of acquiring and sharing knowledge, rather than for capital accumulation and profit. The overarching framework of this project focuses on these two opposed, yet interconnected, “models” and discourses of development (hacker vs capitalist), utilizing video technologies as a case in point in this larger system of technology industries. In this original cultural and critical technology study, Huang claims that while the hacker ethic finds itself subordinate to the dominant capitalist logic, it also innately subverts the latter by simultaneously developing and reinforcing the mutual constitution of the two ideologies, effectively forcing each to become even more mutually (inter)dependent. Here, while Huang’s primary focus is on the intrinsic moments of ideological intersection, he also draws on real world (visual) technologies as principal examples of the extensive commodification of advanced technologies.

Ayondela McDole
Fat, Black and Ugly: The Politics of Postmodern Blackness and the Millennium Mammy

In this project, Ayondela McDole proposes a cultural studies critique of American popular cultural texts, mostly films, where Black comedians dress in drag to portray an appropriated mammy stereotype in the millennium. Through discourse analysis, this project argues that the popularity of what McDole calls ‘mammy drag’ among Black audiences stems from the latter’s hunger for acts and practices of resistance against the homogenizing practices and discourses of the dominant culture.  For McDole, it is precisely this hunger for resistance that has fueled the emergence of new forms of essentialism in Black popular culture as a rebuttal to the ambiguous practices and ideals of postmodernism. The desperation of the Black community in postmodernity enables the dehistoricizing and essentializing of the mammy stereotype and other stereotypes of Black culture more generally.  Black audiences are deceived into believing that Black popular culture is subversive merely by virtue of being Black, without any sort of collective radical political project of resistance.  Mammy drag appropriates Black culture in a way that empties it of any genuine political value, thus, in the end, reproducing the racist discourses that de-humanize Black women out of a latent pro-slavery agenda. This project argues that the critical, analytical voice within Black popular culture should be used as a mode of resistance. Without critical reflection, McDole concludes, Black audiences will continue to identify with dominant oppressive stereotypes and structures, and Black artists will continue to misrepresent racism and oppression as ‘authentic’ culture.